Lenovo Flex 5G Review

Posted on July 26, 2020 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware, Mobile, Windows 10 with 22 Comments

Like many tech enthusiasts, I’ve been bitten by unrealistic expectations in the past and yet I keep coming back for more. Windows 10 on ARM falls neatly into this bucket, and while it’s is a platform I’d like to see succeed, it just keeps failing. The initial generation of Windows 10 on ARM PCs offered stunning battery life but horrible performance and compatibility. So, too, did the second generation. And now, with the Snapdragon 8cx, we have the third-generation Windows 10 on ARM experience, which Microsoft and Qualcomm say solves the performance problems.

It does not: Instead, the Flex 5G offers decent but not stellar battery life along with horrible performance and compatibility. And it does so in a package that is priced far too expensively.

Design

While there are no particular design innovations in the Flex 5G beyond its versatile convertible form factor, I’m a fan of Lenovo’s understated look and feel. And the Iron Gray aluminum and magnesium body is a nice break from the plain silvers of most of the competition, and it certainly feels grippy and premium.

The design flourishes are all subtle, and the best bits incorporate the Lenovo logo. There’s an engraved Lenovo logo in the slightly raised webcam notch in the top of the display lid, for example, and Lenovo “flag” treatments on the wrist rest and outer display lid.

Display

The Flex 5G can be had with exactly one display, a glossy Full HD (1920 x 1080) 14-inch multi-touch IPS panel with a 16:9 aspect ratio and 400-nits of brightness. I have no issues with this choice, and I appreciate the reasonably small bezels, especially on the left and right sides. But I could see some wishing for at least a 1440p option.

Internal components

The Lenovo Flex 5G is powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx 5G compute platform, which consists of an 8cx system-on-a-chip (SoC), Qualcomm Adreno 680 graphics, and a Snapdragon X55 5G modem with both mmWave and Sub-6 GHz support. My understanding is that the 5G part of that is impressive, though I can’t get a 5G connection here in Pennsylvania. But the 8cx does not live up to Qualcomm’s claims of Intel Core i5-level performance. Not even close.

In a bit of bad timing for the Flex 5G, I’ve spent much of the past few weeks digging old PCs out of my cellar and getting them updated and wiped out so I can donate them to charity. It’s a motley collection of hardware spanning Windows Vista, 7, 8.x, and 10, and since some of the PCs are well over 10 years old, they are powered by very early generation Intel Core chipsets, including some Core 2 Duo and Core M options. And here’s the thing: Almost every single one of them performs better, in general use, than does the Flex 5G.

Wait for it …

This is a very real problem and, combined with the software compatibility issues as described below, it undermines any other advantages that this PC may have. Routine tasks like opening the Start menu, opening an Explorer window, or running a mainstream desktop application like Microsoft Word are often met with lengthy pauses, and far too many times I’ve had to wait while a non-responding app I just launched finally recovered and correctly drew itself on-screen. It’s even hung for several seconds while using Alt + Tab.

From a real-world usage perspective, it’s hard to know where the Flex 5G lines up compared to other modern PCs. But even Microsoft’s lowly Surface Go—at least in the “high-end” configuration I tested with a Core-m3 processor, 8 GB of RAM, and SSD storage—performs better. Those internals inside of the Flex 5G’s form factor would make for a better overall experience, I bet.

In the good news department, the Snapdragon chipset runs cool and thus requires only passive cooling. So there is no fan, heat, or noise. You can wait for the computer to catch up with you in silence at least.

Beyond the 8cx SoC, the Flex 5G comes with 8 GB of LPDDRX4 RAM and 256 GB of UFS storage. UFS is a disappointing compromise that sits somewhere between eMMC and real SSDs from a speed perspective, and its commonly used only in smartphones. It’s unclear how much this contributes the Flex 5G’s performance issues, but it can’t help.

The Flex 5G comes with two forms of Windows Hello authentication: Facial recognition courtesy of its otherwise lackluster 720p webcam and fingerprint recognition via a small but accurate fingerprint reader on the wrist rest.

Connectivity

While the Flex 5G disappoints from a performance perspective, this PC currently stands alone at the apex when it comes to connectivity. In addition to 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 5.0, it offers both forms of 5G—mmWave and Sub-6 GHz—thanks to its unique and patented antenna system, and it is thus compatible with all 5G networks and can theoretically hit speeds of 2 Gbps or more. That said, those few who can access Verizon 5G today will top out at about 1 Gbps in one of a handful of locations around the United States with stellar connectivity and perfect conditions, but well below that otherwise. For now, 5G remains an investment in the future.

That’s especially true here in rural Pennsylvania, where the fastest download speed I saw at home over Verizon LTE cellular was about 75 Mbps, while the fastest upload speed was under 7 Mbps. This PC gets similar download speeds over Wi-Fi when in a far corner of the house, but the Wi-Fi upload speed of 25 Mbps is considerably faster than cellular.

Of course, these speeds will vary as one moves around, both inside and out. But the point of cellular connectivity is to provide that always-connected experience where it kicks in when Wi-Fi is weak or unavailable. And Windows 10 actually handles this network switching seamlessly.

Ports and expansion

As a modern premium PC, the Flex 5G comes with a minimal collection of expansion ports. There are two USB-C 3.1 ports on the left side, both of which support power delivery and DisplayPort video.

And … that’s it. The right side houses a combination headphone/mic jack, the power button, and a connectivity switch that toggles Airplane Mode (for some reason).

Audio and video

Thanks to the 14-inch form factor, Lenovo was able to fill the extra space around the keyboard with dual upward-firing and Dolby Atmos-enhanced stereo speakers. I like the look of the speaker grills, and the sound is decent, with well-defined stereo separation but little bass. You can toy with the sound a bit using the Dolby Atmos app, but I usually just let it dynamically adapt to the source automatically.

Keyboard and touchpad

Lenovo’s keyboards tend to offer longer throws and springier action than those from other PC makers, but the firm is over-correcting in the opposite direction with the Flex 5G. Aside from Apple’s reviled butterfly keyboard, the Flex 5G typing experience is the stiffest I’ve experienced, with very short throws and frequent bottom-outs. It’s the type of thing that would be excusable were the PC much thinner than it is. But I’m confused that the Flex doesn’t offer a more traditional typing experience.

That said, it’s not bad per se, and were I using only this laptop for the foreseeable future I’m sure I’d just get used to it. But moving between this PC and others—like the Magic Keyboard-based MacBook Air, the HP Envy x360 13 I recently reviewed, and an HP EliteBook 1040, the stiff keyboard on the Flex 5G really sticks out. Flex is beyond minimal, however, which is a good thing—pressing down anywhere on the keyboard results in almost no give at all—and Lenovo even put the Ctrl and Fn keys in their correct locations, which isn’t always the case. The backlighting was appreciated while it worked, but I can no longer trigger it via the Fn + Space keyboard shortcut. I’m not sure why.

One final issue with the keyboard: Given the extra space, I’d have preferred a layout with separate Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn keys as on the Envy x360 13, but you can only access these keys via the arrow keys and in conjunction with the Fn key, which is awkward and slow.

I had no problems with the touchpad, which is a Precision Touchpad that offers native support for multiple multi-touch gestures. It’s a great size—not too big and not too small—thanks in part to the large wrist rest area.

Portability

At 2.97 pounds and over half an inch thick, the Flex 5G is reasonably lightweight and thin given its large display and convertible form factor, but it’s not really breaking any new ground. If the thing actually performed well, I wouldn’t mind carrying it around.

Speaking of not performing, the Flex 5G can’t match the 20+ hours of battery life that I saw with previous-generation Windows 10 on ARM PCs, and I’m guessing that that the Snapdragon 8cx’s architectural changes, aimed at improving performance, are to blame. But the results are still impressive compared to most PCs, and I’ve averaged over 14 hours of life in my time using it.

Software

The Lenovo Flex 5G comes with Windows 10 Pro version 2004, in keeping with its premium positioning. There is little in the way of crapware, most likely because so little software actually works with Windows 10 ARM: There’s no McAfee to worry about and even though the Lenovo Vantage app ships with the PC, it can’t be used to install drivers; those only arrive via Windows Update.

That’s the end of the good news.

If the Flex 5G’s maddeningly slow performance isn’t enough to scare you off, its horrific software compatibility issues will certainly do the trick. Thanks to the limitations of Windows 10 on ARM, which can only run native ARM64 applications (which are rare to non-existent) plus 32-bit Intel x86 desktop applications in emulation, an entire world of software compatibility is cut off to you. And this will impact anyone who tries to use this PC.

The compatibility issues take two forms: Software applications and drivers, the latter of which typically come with custom software of their own. And my contention, long held and now reaffirmed by my time with this PC, is that everyone will have at least one application or driver they rely on that will not work with Windows 10 on ARM. Many, like me, will have more than one.

So what doesn’t work? Adobe Photoshop Elements or Adobe Photoshop CC. Affinity Photo. Xbox (Beta), the app that Xbox Game Pass subscribers use. Some apps that do work, like Chrome, will automatically grab the 32-bit version and work, but sometimes, you have to manually go find 32-bit versions, as with Slack and Visual Studio Code. And even in cases where there are 32-bit app versions that work on this platform—like Microsoft Office and Visual Studio—the poor performance of those apps gets in the way. You would never want to experience anything but the most casual games on this system even if you could install them.

The driver issues will likely be less painful for most potential customers, since Windows 10 on ARM does provide class drivers for most printers, scanners, and other peripherals, so you’ll get at least basic functionality. But if your device maker provides a custom driver set with utilities that unlock your peripheral’s unique features, you won’t be able to use that with Windows 10 on ARM.

Whatever. This platform is too much of a compromise for too many people, and since most will never understand why the compatibility issues exist in the first place, trying to use this PC normally will be an unnecessarily frustrating experience.

Pricing and configurations

The Lenovo Flex 5G is a laughably expensive $1499.99, especially when you consider that the Intel version of this PC (which lacks 5G support) starts at under $500. There is only one model, and there are no upgrades possible to the RAM, storage, or display.

If you purchase the Flex 5G from Verizon, you can pay for its over 24 monthly installments of about $58 each. Cellular connectivity will cost extra, of course.

Recommendations and conclusions

Because of its terrible performance and compatibility problems and its extravagant cost, I just can’t recommend the Lenovo Flex 5G or any other Windows 10 on ARM-based PC, for that matter. This platform is still too experimental for mainstream use, and its great battery life and stellar connectivity options don’t in any way make up for its functional shortcomings.

At-a-glance

Pros

  • Great battery life
  • 5G connectivity
  • Versatile form factor

Cons

  • Terrible performance
  • Terrible software compatibility
  • Far too expensive

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